New Alameda rabbi walking in big family footsteps

Rabbi Barnett Brickner, who’ll be officially installed on Friday, Feb. 8, as the new rabbi of Temple Israel in Alameda, is more than just a third-generation rabbi.

He carries with him an illustrious family history with influence spanning two world wars, several social movements and a sea change in the Reform movement.

His late grandfather, also Rabbi Barnett Brickner, was an exuberant Zionist who led one congregation from Orthodox to Reform, tripled the population of another and helped launch the National Jewish Education Association (among other organizations).

His grandmother, Rebecca Brickner, was a mover and shaker as well. She was a co-founder of Hadassah, she led services at a big Cleveland synagogue in the 1920s, and in 1927 she traveled — by herself — to Jerusalem to study.

Rabbi Barnett Brickner

And then there was his father, the late Rabbi Balfour Brickner. He was a national Jewish leader in the civil rights movement, the Vietnam antiwar movement and others. In his 2005 obituary in the New York Times, he was called “a voice of Reform Judaism on issues like race and abortion.”

“I’ve always been very proud of my family heritage, and I carry it with me every day,” Brickner said. “It was fun and never boring to grow up under such a roof.”

How big was the first Barnett Brickner? In 1928, he staged a series of public debates around the United States and Canada with the famous American lawyer Clarence Darrow. Brickner argued the negative to the question “Is Man a Machine?”

Born in 1892 in New York City, he earned a handful of college degrees and was a noted intellectual who wrote several books. He was a founder of the Young Judea movement in 1909 and served as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in the 1950s.

A collection of his letters, sermons, speeches and manuscripts — plus those of his wife — is housed in the American Jewish Archives.

Brickner also hosted a weekly radio program in Ohio from the late 1920s until World War II. In that regard, Balfour Barnett followed in his father’s footsteps, hosting the Peabody-winning “Adventures in Judaism,” a radio program of music and drama that was syndicated in the 1960s.

But Balfour’s impact went well beyond that. He generated controversy, helped spur social change and drew outrage for his political activism (even if the Washington Post described him as “tall, dark and handsome,” and New York magazine later praised his “wavy silver mane, and chiseled jaw”).

Rabbi Balfour Brickner (right) joins Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (left) at a prayer service for civil rights in the early ‘60s.

In 1952, at 26, he founded Temple Sinai in Washington, D.C., and later became senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. From 1961 to 1980, he held a high-level social action post for Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, creating and heading a national commission that worked to strengthen relations between Christians and Jews.

During the civil rights sruggle, Balfour accepted an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr. to travel through the South, where he “enjoyed the hospitality of those cities’ finest jails,” as he later said. He was vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War and the subsequent U.S. involvement in Nicaragua. In the 1980s, he helped establish the Black-Jewish Coalition of New York City.

But it was his criticism of Israeli policies that stirred accusations of disloyalty.

“Dad was the first rabbi to speak out against Israel,” Barnett Brickner said. “He wrote ‘As Driven Sands’ [in 1969], advocating a two-state solution.”

Balfour Barnett told the New York Times his critics expect him to adopt a “My country right or wrong” ethos, “but I’ve never adopted that for America and I’ll be damned if I’ll adopt it for Israel.” He called for Palestinians’ rights, condemned military forays into Lebanon and urged an end to the domination of the Orthodox in Israeli religious life.

But the person who most influenced Temple Israel’s Brickner to become a rabbi was his grandmother, Rebecca.

At a time when it was seldom done, in 1927, Rebecca journeyed to Jerusalem by herself to study. At a time when it was never done, in the ’20s, she conducted entire services at Congregation Anshe Chesed in Cleveland, when her husband was speaking on the road, and even read from the Torah in Hebrew. She also earned a doctoral degree in Hebrew literature — at age 87.

She was “a force none could ignore,” wrote Rabbi John Moscowitz of Holy Blossom Temple in Ontario, where the Brickners spent five years in the 1920s. “She drew people to her and made things happen.”

Born in 1894, Rebecca co-founded Hadassah in 1913 and served on the organization’s national board, and launched Hadassah in Canada in 1921.

Barnett Brickner was hired by Temple Israel last summer following the June retirement of Rabbi Allen Bennett after 16 years. A rabbi since his ordination from Hebrew Union College in 1987, his recent previous work included serving as a hospital chaplain in Columbus, Ohio, and as a congregational rabbi at a synagogue in Lima, Ohio.

Already on the job at Temple Israel for seven months, he will be installed by Rabbi Joe Black, a contemporary Jewish musician and a pulpit rabbi in Denver. Black will also give a celebratory concert on Saturday, Feb. 9.

While Barnett, 54, said he shares his father’s commitment to social justice, as a rabbi, he more closely resembles his grandfather, with his passion for education.

“People do not look to religious leadership to inform their political perspectives anymore,” he said. “I try to educate the congregation to a Jewish world view.”

Installation of Rabbi Barnett Brickner
and Shabbat service, 7:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 8. Dinner at 6 p.m. (tickets required). Additional events on Saturday. Temple Israel, 3138 Mecartney Road, Alameda.

Rebecca Rosen Lum

Rebecca Rosen Lum is a freelance writer.